Live, Not Memorex? Not Necessarily
By Bob Gendron
Anyone who remembers the heyday of home taping surely recalls the creative slogan “Is it live, or is it Memorex” tagline used in the recordable media company’s commercials. Mixtapes and cassette recordings are now just a nostalgic afterthought but Memorex’s tagline is more relevant than ever given what’s been happening onstage during televised events.
First, millions found out that the classical rendition of “Air and Simple Gifts” by Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Anthony McGill, and Gabriela Montero was taped before the apparent inaugural performance, which was “staged” after cold temperatures made it impossible to play live. Fair enough. Aretha Franklin’s take of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” also received assistance in the form of taped voices and music. Must’ve been the weather again.
Then, it was revealed that Jennifer Hudson’s version of the “Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl last Sunday was performed using backing tracks. This shouldn’t have come as a shock. Many artists that sing the challenging tune opt for the security of a pre-recorded version, and given the mammoth viewing audience, producers weren’t taking any chances. Anyone watching it in HDTV could see that Hudson’s breathing and singing didn’t exactly match up with what they were hearing. She did a nice job of covering up, and while there was no doubting the emotion involved, Hudson wasn’t flying without a net. (For the record, neither was Faith Hill, who sang “America the Beautiful.” No surprise there.)
Now comes the news that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s 12-minute escapade was also pre-recorded. Everything, that is, except the Boss’ vocals, and, sadly, his corny “guacamole” and “penalty” comments. It’s likely this will be a bigger issue with fans, who view Springsteen as a down-to-earth guy who has earned a reputation for marathon concerts and honest performances. The pre-recorded revelation throws this image into doubt. At least a little.
Of course, it’s understandable why the E Streeters used a backing tape. Like Hudson, there’s too much room for error and too little room for correction, particularly when everything is scripted and choreographed down to the second. And television and music have never been a good match. Music, particularly rock, demands to be experienced live, not via the blunted prism and sanitized medium of a television screen.
Still, one can see why fans might be upset. It’s difficult not to feel a bit cheated when you realize what you’re watching and hearing (or, watch you watched and heard) is no more authentic than a reality-TV show. And there’s the rub. Springsteen has built his legacy on authenticity. Like his recent decision to sell an exclusive greatest-hits disc at Wal-Mart, this move tarnishes that image. And yes, there are many more important things to worry about. But when fans can no longer put faith in performers to play live, it calls into question one of the reasons why we go to shows—and begs the question of how much people are hearing at arena-sized gigs is truly “live.”
Then again, big-time rock acts like the Rolling Stones and U2 have been using backing tapes at their concerts for years. That’s right: pop artists like Janet Jackson and Britney Spears aren’t the only ones that rely on a proverbial man behind the curtain. Who knows? If one change comes out of this debacle, and much of the public’s surprise over what happened, perhaps that dirty little secret will be a secret no longer.
To read the original story breaking the Springsteen news, as well as music-industry professionals’ explanations for why backing tracks are allegedly necessary, go to: